Maggie Grabow–The Female Wizard of Oz

Bike lanes to and from the capitol

In the past eight months–since I’ve started my blog–I have had the pleasure of interviewing so many amazing people in the cycling community.  In the beginning, I was actually concerned that I would run out of material.  I quickly realized that instead, more avenues presented themselves to me than I ever could have imagined.

For the past four or five years, a name that was repetitively brought to my attention was Maggie Grabow.  A good friend, Jon Patz (the same guy that introduced me to Lennard Zinn), kept saying that I had to meet Maggie because she was performing studies that I would really be interested in.  Her name was also brought to my attention by former Rep. Spencer Black, who had her conduct a study for him.  Finally, after feeling like I already knew her, we got to sit down for a chat.

Maggie is a powerhouse in the field of public health and yet she comes across as a sweet, calm and lovely woman.  She is currently embarking on an enormous change since her husband is entering medical residency here in Madison while she takes on her dissertation.  In the past five years, she, along with Jon Patz and others in the public health sector at UW, have put out two studies that have shaped how the government views cycling in the MidWest–and throughout the country.

Just this past week, Maggie joined a group from Wisconsin at the National Bike Summit in D.C.  It was an enormous success with around 800 participants.  Their focus was that in the United States, 12% of trips are made by walking and cycling yet 14% of all traffic fatalities are walking/bicycling related.  Only 1.6% of Federal transportation funds are spent to make these modes safer…and that needs to change.  Since Dave Schlabowske, Kevin Luecke and I have all written blog posts talking more in depth about this, I won’t go into the specifics much more, however, I do want you to know that there is hope with people like Maggie fighting for us!

Overflowing session at bike summit

During Maggie’s time in Washington D.C. and during the Wisconsin Bicycle summit, she presented her findings on a study that became public last year.  I remember Jon Patz telling me that there would be a big press release, however, I never could have imagined a bike study going viral the way this one did.  Within a couple days, it hit most major newspapers and websites, including the Huffington Post.  Here is a basic overview of this study in Maggie’s words:

 We quantified the environmental, health, and economic benefit of bicycling short trips in the 11 largest cities in the Upper Midwest during the warmest 6 months of the year. We united state-of-the-science approaches to modeling transportation, emissions, air pollution in the form of fine particulates (PM2.5) and ozone (O3), and the health effects of air pollution and active transport. These models determine the net health benefit from improved air quality—a benefit that extends beyond city limits—at $4.94 billion per year, saving 608 lives. We estimated the annual regional health benefits from increased physical activity to be $3.8 billion, resulting from avoided mortality and reduced health care costs. In terms of air quality, we saw a reduction in annual average urban fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) by 0.1 µg/m3. We also found slight increase in summer ozone (O3) (a major component of smog) in cities with a decrease in ozone regionally. In regards to physical activity, the total regional benefit was a reduction of about 700 deaths annually, with a savings of about $3.8 from this reduced mortality.  Total combined benefit from both improved air quality and increased physical activity in the region is estimated at a savings of about $8.7 billion with mortality declining by 1,295 deaths per year.


The study that she performed for former Representative Spencer Black proved that the bicycle industry is a very important piece in the health of the Wisconsin economy.  Maggie, along with Melissa Whited and Micah Hahn, estimated that the total economic benefit of bicycle recreation exceeded $924 million annually which is a number on par with the contribution of deer hunting in Wisconsin’s economy.  That’s just the recreation side folks!  When you add in bicycle manufacturing, sales and services to bicycle recreation, the benefit to Wisconsin is estimated at about $1.5 billion annually.  Now, with numbers like that, I’m not sure how we’d survive without the bicycle industry.

I asked Maggie a few questions beyond her studies.  Here they are:

1) What are you riding right now?  Do you have a favorite bike?

Maggie with her Trek

Road Bike Frame – Gary Fisher ARC Pro

Road Bike Parts – Trek 1220

My beloved Trek 1220 (which I received as a gift from my parents in 8th grade) was stolen outside my office building on UW-Madison’s campus in November of 2008. After 8 months of scanning every bike rack I saw in the entire city of Madison, I finally discovered it on a bike rack on campus, less than a mile from my office. Within 30 minutes, there were three squad cars on the scene, and the police cut the lock. I was thrilled to bring my bike home, only to find that the “temporary owner” tightened the bike seat so tightly that the frame cracked. Fortunately, Trek was able to supply me with a new frame, and the bike store was able to fit most of my old parts. Thus, I currently own and ride a part Gary Fisher Arc Pro / part Trek 1220.

*I have to add that while talking with Maggie about this incident, she mentioned the movie “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”.  She said that growing up it was one of her favorite movies and that she somewhat related to it when her bike was stolen.

2) When did you get into cycling/What made you get into cycling?

I began cycling as a mode of transportation since my main form of exercise was long-distance running. I sold my car in 2007 as a personal challenge to get around by bike, on foot, or by bus. Living in downtown Madison and having a short commute to campus made moving about the city without a car an easy challenge!

3)  What are three things that you would like to see Wisconsin focus on regarding biking?

a.Separate Bike Paths/lanes – I think one solution for improving bicyclists’ safety is to create a bike lane/path that is separated from car traffic by a barrier of some type, whether it is a grassy buffer or concrete. Though some argue that bicyclists may incur a greater risk by being segregated from the roadway, my personal assessment (after spending time in The Netherlands) is that more people will bike if they feel safe. Separated bikeways can provide this additional feeling of security. As a result, more bikers will be out and about. With more bikers present, it is assumed that drivers will drive more cautiously (Jacobsen, Injury Prevention, 2003); therefore, there will be less crashes and incidents between bicycles and motorists.

Separate bike lanes in the Netherlands

b. Workplace Showers – It seems whenever I talk to people about their mode of transportation to work, their main reluctance toward bicycling is the lack of shower facilities at work. I think it is important that workplaces make it a priority to provide their employees with proper shower/locker facilities so that people have the opportunity to bike to work (and especially one fewer excuse not to)

c. Better Education about nighttime bike lights & visibility – A friend of mine was struck from behind and killed while riding on a county highway. It is known that he had a light on his bike, but unclear if in the front or the back of the bicycle. Nevertheless, it was a huge wake-up call for me. Even though it is against the law to ride without a front white light and a rear read reflector in Madison, I see people riding without lights all of the time. I think people need to be better educated about the rules for staying visible at night.

4)  Are there any communities in the world that you feel are “getting it right” regarding cycling infrastructure and what could Wisconsin learn from those communities?

Bicycle parking at high school in the Netherlands

I had the opportunity to visit some communities in The Netherlands in September 2011. It wasn’t long before I came to the realization that bicycling was more than a just transportation option – it was a part of daily life. People of every age, size, and occupation were riding bikes – and not just for recreation or getting to work – but for running errands and taking kids to school.

Eindhoven / Waalre, The Netherlands

• Separate bike paths (on most roads)

• More than adequate bike parking

Underground bike parking in the Netherlands

• Separate street lights for bicycles and pedestrians

• Lack of social stigma against biking – all ages and sizes of people

• Creative carrying devices (for kids, groceries, pets, etc.)

• Underground bike parking – with “bike escalator” for getting down

• Bicycling fits into daily life there, thanks to numerous little details in infrastructure.

5)  What cycling projects would you like to be a part of in the future?

I’m hoping to continue my research in the co-benefits of active transportation (including bicycling and walking). I’m currently working on an ancillary study at the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Assessment of the Social and Built Environment (WASABE). My research is assessing the relationship of Wisconsin resident’s built environment and the suitability / feasibility of bicycling and walking. I’m also hoping to make some associations between people’s health and the level of connectivity in their neighborhood. In other words, I’m looking to assess how people’s ability to move around in their neighborhoods affects their health.

Although there are times that I feel quite down about the state of the country and world, when I meet people like Maggie, I have to admit that I have more hope.  We can only hope that there are more bright, young people wanting to enter into careers that can make a positive impact on the cycling and walking community.  I am including a link to Maggie’s studies for further reading.  Below are a few more pictures from her trip to the Netherlands.



About Kierstin Kloeckner, Bike Fed Board Member

Kierstin is a personal trainer who lives and bikes in Madison and a board member for the Bike Fed. She writes guest posts for us here, but you can read more of her thoughts on how cycling fits into her life at her personal blog Two Wheels From Home

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